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Friday 13 March 2015

How one man helped change the way we dine in Australia

It was almost 30 years ago that I first became aware of a talented young chef called Tetsuya Wakuda. 

I was doing some restaurant reviews for the Daily Telegraph in Sydney and gave a glowing review to the man behind the pans at Ultimo's - a now long-closed spot where the food was an intriguing combination of French and Japanese flavours. 
Tetsuya Wakuda

I later received a hand-written letter of thanks from the chef and sometime later Tetsuya's opened in a terraced house in Rozelle, later switching to the city. 

Tetsuya is the only chef I can ever recall writing a personalised thank you note for a review; and that humble character has stayed with him as he soared to be recognised as one of the greatest chefs on the planet. 

Other, younger, chefs may now be all the rage but it was still nice to see Tets, whose empire now extends to Waku Ghin in Singapore, this week recognised by his peers throughout Asia and the world, for his lifelong contribution to the world of gastronomy.

I received a short press release noting that he has been awarded the Diners Club Lifetime Achievement award - Asia 2015 on Monday, but saw absolutely nothing in the mainstream press.

Born and raised in Japan, Tetsuya arrived in Australia in 1982 at the age of 22 with a limited knowledge of English and a small suitcase. He also brought with him an obsessive interest in food and a quiet determination to open his own restaurant.

He started work as a kitchen hand at Fishwives before falling under the influence of the great Tony Bilson at Kinselas. It was here that Tetsuya learned the classical French techniques that  formed his now renowned style of cooking - blending the purity of his native Japanese food culture with the techniques and style of classic French cuisine.

"My aim was only ever to get a good job doing what I loved," he explains. "I never had a grand master plan and I am quite humbled by this award. 

"Like most chefs I only ever wanted to cook my own food, in my own way and I am thankful that people continue to enjoy that. Everyone in this industry knows that no one chef stands alone and I have been very lucky to have always had such a great team of people working with me."
Tetsuya's Sydney Mark II
Tetsuya's has now been open for close on 27 years, an eternity in the Sydney restaurant business. In 2006, the chef was honoured as the first sake ambassador outside of Japan, and in 2013 was acknowledged by the Japanese Government and awarded the esteemed ‘Japan’s Master of Cuisine’ title - the first ever internationally-based chef to do so. 

The chef’s great love affair with Tasmania resulted in a formal role bestowed in 2003 as International Food and Beverage Ambassador. In addition to his ambassadorial role Tetsuya has personally financed and supported small producers on the island state, creating new businesses in the food and beverage sector. He also actively supports local Tasmanian artists and craftsmen.

And he remains as humble as ever. 

A couple of years ago, on an icy Tasmanian morning on the banks on the Huon River, the superstar chef  threw a party for several hundred people who turned up on the first day of winter for the launch of his “fishing boat”.

Tetsuya realised a long-held dream when his $800,000 motor cruiser was officially christened Belle – and hit the water at Franklin for the first time but he delighted the locals by organising breakfast for them to mark the occasion. 

The chef invited everyone from TV presenter Ray Martin to local school children to join in the festivities; laying on a jazz band from the Hobart Conservatorium of Music, free coffee and scones for all-comers. 
You would be hard pressed to relate that this is the same man who has won a plethora of awards and has featured as a regular in San Pellegrino's Worlds 50 Best Restaurant Awards since the list’s inception in 2002. 
Waku Ghin at Marina Bay Sands 
Since 2010 much of his attention has been devoted to Waku Ghin, which he opened in The Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore and is currently rated in the top 10 restaurants in Asia. 
Everyone loves Tets and is is great to see him gain this global award. Today, young chefs that have gone through his kitchen, and front of house staff that have delivered to his exacting standards, populate some of the most celebrated restaurants in the world.
But it hasn't all been plain sailing. Along the way, his marriage broke up, he has no children despite loving them, and he freely admits his work is his life and his work colleagues are his family.
"I've made a life," he said in a long interview with me back in 2009. "I almost have to pinch my cheek to believe what happened but the restaurant is my family. I still love the kitchen; love cooking. It would be nice to be with someone again but it's crazy hours that I work. 

"To be honest, I think it's amazing that other people find time to be a father, a chef and a restaurateur. I may not have family here but I have people I can call family - some very dear friends - so I am very fortunate. My staff are my family, too, and I love seeing them grow."

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